Pandora’s box opened

Cayman’s business community largely dismisses the idea of a payroll tax as the best way forward for Cayman. The tax does not address the actual problem of overspending, it will be difficult to collect and it is going to create a burden on the economy.

This burden was highlighted by a study commissioned by government in 2009, which forecasted a 6.2 per cent reduction in GDP over the six years following the introduction of a payroll tax. Moreover, the discriminatory and unfair nature of a payroll tax applied only to expatriates is economically unjustifiable.  

The government of the Cayman Islands has experienced budget woes for quite some time. Ever since in 2007 government spending started to exceed revenues government has been unable to balance the books. This was later exacerbated by the financial and economic crisis. 

The latest round of budget negotiations has for the first time produced a government proposal for direct taxation. This has long been demanded by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, concerned it may have to foot the bill if Cayman defaulted on its government loans. Yet it was widely rejected by the business community in the Cayman Islands and the Cayman government – until now. 

The Premier of the Cayman Islands McKeeva Bush has dubbed the 10 per cent direct tax on salaries of expatriates in the private sector euphemistically a “community enhancement fee”, a term that would deserve its own chapter in the public relations book “Toxic sludge is good for you”. 


A payroll tax imposed solely on expatriates in Cayman’s workforce would fall well short of the most basic principles of fairness.  

Don Seymour, managing director of DMS, says “government needs a rational and sustainable approach to balancing its budget comprising both revenue measures and cost reductions. It cannot expect to finance its deficits on any one segment of our community.” 

Under the proposal, foreign workers will be significantly impacted financially by the payroll tax and the loss of employer pension contributions. If employers choose not to contribute anything toward the employee’s payroll tax, the effective tax rate would be 14.28 per cent of gross salary, up to $60,000 per annum. This rate would be the highest among Cayman’s main offshore financial centre competitors. 

If an employer continues to contribute five per cent to the pension plan or contribute that five per cent toward the payroll tax, the effective tax rate would be 9.52 per cent. 

In addition, foreign residents, and those foreigners contemplating moving to the Cayman Islands, will have to ask themselves whether they would want to live in a country where they are openly discriminated against on such a scale. Non-Caymanian residents already have no access to government services, such as schooling for their children, and they are subject to higher property taxes in the form of stamp duty rates. Now this discrimination would be extended to income taxation and pension benefits. 

Concerns over the contravention of human rights by a payroll tax that solely applies to foreign residents have also been raised.  

The Bill of Rights, Freedoms and Responsibilities of the Cayman Islands constitution exempts in article 16 (4) subsection 1 the appropriation of revenues and the imposition of taxation from its general non-discrimination rules. But legal commentators such as Sara Collins, a member of the Human Rights Commission, called the potential legal implications of the tax “a grey area”. 

What is certain is that the idea of applying income or payroll taxation only to foreigners is unique. An analysis of the potential to introduce a payroll tax for expatriates in the Cayman Islands, carried out by the Economics and Statistics Office in 2009, noted that payroll taxes in other countries are non-discriminatory with regard to the nationality of employees “based on the principle of equal compensation for the same level of productivity regardless of nationality”. 

Moreover, there is no economic reason for excluding Caymanians in the workforce from the proposed payroll tax. The 2010 Census shows1 that Caymanians earn significantly more than non-Caymanians. Although there are more non-Caymanians than Caymanians in the workforce (18,761 compared to 15,453), there are significantly more Caymanians in jobs that command salaries above $28,800 per annum (10,265 Caymanians compared to 8,012 non-Caymanians). Even in the highest wage brackets Caymanians outnumber expats.   

Government disregards recommendations  

Even if applied universally, the payroll tax proposal appears to go against previous reports and recommendations commissioned by government. The Miller Shaw report, drafted in response to UK demands for a proper assessment of government spending and potential new revenue sources, concluded a payroll tax is certainly capable of generating substantial revenue, but even a well-designed levy “would have adverse effects on the Cayman economy”. 

The Miller-Shaw report was also critical of the interplay between a payroll tax and work permit fees. “A payroll tax in addition to work permit fees would add to employment costs and make Cayman less competitive in the market for skilled professionals,” it said. 

Seymour agrees.  

“Implementing a payroll tax would remove a significant competitive advantage in attracting talent to the Cayman Islands,” he says. “It would also increase the cost of doing business simply because the employer pays the employee. The proposed payroll tax together with the increased work permit fees would make it considerably more expensive to hire in the Cayman Islands than in any competing jurisdiction”.  

Steve McIntosh, CEO of offshore recruitment firm CML, says the introduction of payroll tax would be a severe blow to a beleaguered private sector. “Work permit fees have always been a de facto payroll tax on foreign workers for all intents and purposes. If the payroll tax and work permit costs combined come to 20-30 per cent of salary, we’re in the territory of a regular onshore tax regime,” he says. 

Former chairman of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority Tom Ridley summarises the wider criticism of the proposed payroll tax, saying “the current flawed proposal beggars belief – it is unfair, likely uncollectible and sends a terrible message both locally and internationally.” 

It is also unclear why the revenue measure would make more sense now than in the past when government vigorously rejected it. 

“There are a number of ways of developing sustainable revenues sources that link the payment for public services to those who benefit from the services – and that are fair, cost effective and non-disruptive to the local economy. The payroll tax is not one of them,” says Ridley. 

The government commissioned 2009 ESO report “A proposed payroll tax for the Cayman Islands” which assessed the economic impact of such a charge on Cayman’s economy supports this conclusion. 

Economic effect  

The ESO study expected revenue of $40 million in the first year and $48 million in the following years based on 2008 employment data. This amount however is much lower when the negative impact of the tax on employees and employers is taken into consideration.  

The report noted expats account for 41 per cent of the total consumption of goods and services in Cayman. It argued that consumption of housing, food, etc. would decline together with government revenues from consumption as a result of the payroll tax. Employers in turn, if they were to take over the cost of the tax, would experience lower profits and reduced funds for expansion and investment. When these effects are taken into account, the ESO study says the revenue from a payroll tax is reduced by approximately 54 per cent to $17 million in the first year and $22 million in the subsequent years.  

The report points out that when people are taxed their propensity to consume is reduced and the multiplier effect on GDP of the spending by non-Caymanians in the local economy diminishes. 

The study projected a GDP decline of 6.2 per cent for a six-year period after the introduction of a payroll tax of 10 per cent. 

It should be noted; however, that the impact on the local economy would be even larger, because Cayman’s GDP includes significant offshore activity that has no measurable local effect. 

The report further acknowledged that “employers of non-Caymanian employees in the offshore financial services industry will be hard put to pay their share of the payroll tax given the deep cuts in their income since the latter half of 2008, plus the remaining uncertainty on the future of the global financial market.” Three years of recession later, the conditions have rather worsened than improved.  

The report added: “The sector’s competitiveness could be negatively impacted by the proposed measure. It may be noted that financial services account for 83 per cent of Cayman’s GDP.” 

McIntosh says the effect on employers depends on the employers’ ability and willingness to absorb the additional cost, and their willingness and ability to move work overseas. “If employers feel they have to absorb some or all of the extra burden and they are in an ‘untethered’ industry, such as fund administration, this could well be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, accelerating the decline of the sector in Cayman to the benefit of competitors like Canada and Ireland.” 

These concerns are echoed by Cayman Finance, the representative body of the financial services sector. In a statement, the organisation notes that the Cayman Islands is already a relatively expensive place to do business, in particular in regards to work permit fees and trade and business licenses.  

“The proposed tax will undoubtedly lead to a further increase in the burden faced by all businesses in the Cayman Islands, despite the suggested optional pension contributions for expatriates.” 

The negative impact of the payroll tax on competitiveness was not even included in the ESO analysis due to a lack of data and time for preparation. The report does, however, expect a sharp upturn in inflation and the cost of living, to the extent that cost increases can be passed on to consumers. 

Labour market  

Even in terms of the labour effect, the ESO analysis is pessimistic. While the tax could have a positive impact on the employment of Caymanians in those occupations and level of skills where the local supply is available to replace non-Caymanians, the ESO said, “it is known that Caymanian labour supply is severely limited”. Overall total employment would fall by 1,600 under an 8 per cent payroll tax and by 2,300 under a 12 per cent scenario during a six year period following its implementation. 

McIntosh says it is difficult to predict how this will affect the employment market. “Right now there is a lot of anger and indignation which is inevitable whenever taxes are raised. But the real question is not how people feel about it but what they will do about it,” he says. “It’s hard to imagine an exodus of financial professionals fleeing to countries with far higher tax rates and weak employment markets besides.” 

Because there are fewer jobs available, the supply of finance professionals is strong right now, says McIntosh. “Therefore the new tax shouldn’t create shortages in the foreseeable future.”  

He believes, doing away with the pension contribution would, perversely, mean that employers can advertise higher salaries without incurring any additional cost, because salaries are always advertised gross of tax but not gross of pension contributions.  

Collection costs  

The payroll tax would also be difficult to collect, according to the Miller-Shaw report, which said “any form of income or payroll taxation would require the imposition of an entirely new tax system, with both high set-up costs and potentially significant and permanent compliance costs”. 

Given the sketchy record of some Cayman companies in making pension contributions, enforcement will be a major issue, particularly when the taxable amounts are getting larger. A review by the Complaints Commissioner in 2010 found 670 companies in Cayman delinquent on their pension payments. 

“Collecting and enforcing the payment of a payroll tax would likely require a new bureaucracy whose costs would offset any potential gains or require further dramatic tax increases,” says Seymour.  

The ESO analysis, in contrast was more conservative in its estimate and assumed, based on public finance literature, a cost of 8 per cent of the collected tax revenue is needed for the administration and collection of the payroll tax in the first and running costs of 3 per cent of tax revenue in subsequent years. However, this would require a 95 per cent compliance rate with the tax.  

Cutting spending or raising revenue?   

Much of the criticism of the payroll tax is focused on the government not reining in enough on spending. Ridley says it is important that before any new revenue measures are even proposed, the government must regain the public’s trust through meaningful reductions in government waste and expenditures. “Sadly, neither the UDP nor the PPM seems able or likely to do so.”  

Kim Lund, owner/broker at RE/MAX also believes “focusing on reducing costs and expenses would have been far more positive” than turning mainly to revenue measures. 

“Introducing payroll taxes at this time seems a desperate attempt to balance the government’s excessive budget rather than tackle the tough decisions of reducing its own costs,” says Pilar Bush, CEO of AtWater Consulting Ltd. 

“The private sector understands the challenges facing this government – we know these problems are not all of their own making; we know there are no magic bullets and we know that the necessary decisions are painful,” she says. “But together, public and private sector, we can work through this without introducing payroll taxes. I hope they will reconsider and withdraw the decision.” 

Cayman Finance also hopes that further consultation will be possible and says it also stands willing and keen to assist government in these efforts to create a sustainable budget. The organisation encourages policymakers to take a more balanced approach to resolving the current fiscal challenges which includes significant efforts in the area of expenditure reduction. 

“While we welcome the proposed expenditure reductions as a positive step, we support the general opinion held by many within the wider business community that the government should place the further reduction of recurrent expenditure as a priority in its current efforts to balance the budget. Such cost cutting measures should take precedence over any additional revenue measures,” Cayman Finance says. 

“We encourage the government to carefully consider the wider implications for the economy, and to engage in a comparative analysis of the cost of doing business across the various competing jurisdictions before taking any decisions on this proposed tax.”  

Roy McTaggart, managing partner, KPMG says “the proposed payroll tax will obviously have ramifications to our business and our people; therefore we would certainly welcome discussions with government before the implementation of any new measures.”  

The Chamber of Commerce meanwhile supports the recommended reductions to government expenses and the fundamental policy shift that will now require the public sector to contribute to their pension and health care costs, which has been required by the private sector for many years.  

“This is a positive step forward and an approach that the Chamber has advocated and supported for several years.” 

The introduction of the payroll tax however would require more analysis and review, the Chamber said in a statement. “These types of fees have long term consequences that must be evaluated carefully. We have already received expressions of concern from various industry sectors and we plan to share our views with government shortly.” 

The leadership of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association comments that it understands the need for sustainability and fiscal prudence, and that to be credibly sustainable the government’s budget will require a mix of expenditure savings and means of increasing government revenues.  

Image issues  

The introduction of a direct tax will also change the perception of the Cayman Islands. It is unlikely that a payroll tax once introduced would ever be removed, as suggested by the premier, especially if the necessary cuts to government spending cannot be achieved even in a time of crisis. 

“Adopting any form of income or payroll tax would remove much of the allure that has boosted the economy,” concluded the Miller Shaw report. 

RE/MAX’s Lund says he understands how difficult this severe recession has been on government. “It has been equally difficult on business, the real estate industry, and overall economy. The global perception of this direct tax is that potential residents and investors for real estate will fear that we have now accepted direct taxation and annual property taxes could be next,” says Lund. “It is this perception versus the true situation that could drive business to other financial centers and tourist/investment destinations and ultimately away from Cayman.” 

Lund says RE/MAX Cayman lost five potential deals in the first two days after the payroll tax announcement. 

The Bermuda Gazette has meanwhile celebrated the fact that attracting international business will be much easier now that Cayman is introducing direct taxation for expats. 

Pension fund industry  

Finally, the proposed exemption of expatriates from the Cayman Islands National Pensions Law would have a significant immediate impact on the Islands’ pension plans. The decline in monthly contributions from expatriate plan members will mean that most if not all plans will regress or shrink for years to come, while monthly redemptions will maintain their current level. 

“All of this would translate into much higher per unit costs for the plans – that is, lowered returns for the members,” says Charles Farrington, deputy chairman of the Board of Trustees of Silver Thatch Pensions. “At some point the plans would presumably return to growth again but it could be many years before that happens.”  

Farrington does not, however, necessarily expect consolidation in the industry given that the two largest pension plans in Cayman, the Chamber of Commerce Pension Plan and Silver Thatch are not-for-profit plans. 

Pension plan providers had not been consulted by government prior to the budget proposal, Farrington therefore did not know any more specifics as to what the rules and timeframes for redeeming funds from pension plans would look like if and when expatriates are exempted from the Pension Law. 

note: We have now included a link to the Census data quoted in the article.

McKeeva Bush with budget speech

Premier Bush shows the budget documents to those gathered outside the Legislative Assembly in 2010. This time around the Cayman Islands is in a quandary with the UK over its budget proposals. – Photo: Brent Fuller


  1. Brilliant and apt title. For those unfamiliar with and unwilling to google Pandora’s Box, in the comic book version once the box was opened all of the evils contained in it (the possibility of direct tax) escaped, and the only thing that remained at the bottom of the box was Hope (the possibility that McKeeva might resign?).

    Closing the box does not solve anything, the damage has been done.

  2. I think it is probably the single greatest existential threat to the Cayman Islands in over 200 years. Anthony Travers, Chairman, Cayman Islands Stock Exchange.

    Students of business and government often refer to how a company or a country makes money as the business model. Understanding the business model of a country, enables one to make choices that enable the country to succeed. Misunderstanding the business model can lead to existential threats.

    The business model of a tax free jurisdiction is to be tax free so as to attract businesses that would otherwise have located elsewhere — and in place of taxes to attract fees from the companies and any expat employees with specialized skills that these businesses may employ (in addition to Caymanian people they would employ but for whom there would be no fee to the government). It is the combination of company fees, expat fees, import duties, etc. etc. — all indirect taxes — that make it possible for no one (whether they are Caymanians or expats) to pay direct taxes. It is also these fees which fund MLA salaries, compensation for civil servants, unemployment benefits, social services, police, schools, roads etc.

    The moment a tax free jurisdiction introduces a direct tax, any direct tax — whether on Caymanians or expats — it ceases to be a tax free jurisdiction and it signals to investors that it has entered the slippery slope of a taxable jurisdiction. As Anthony Travers states, The confidence placed by investors in the tax free status of the Cayman Islands is based, not simply on legislative structure, but on a belief that the core philosophy of the Cayman Islands’ people would always find direct taxation repugnant.

    Once this belief is violated — through the precedent set by a direct tax, any direct tax (such as the one proposed by the Premier last week) — companies and investors seeking a tax neutral jurisdiction will locate elsewhere (in other tax neutral jurisdictions), and over time the fee income will disappear completely. For every dollar of fee income that disappears, the government will have to replace it with a dollar of taxes. Once virtually all fee income is gone, almost all government revenues will have to be raised through direct taxes. Since most international businesses will have left at that point, the base of expats will be very low and the expat fees will correspondingly diminish. To pay for government expenses at that point — MLA salaries, civil servants, unemployment benefits, social services, police, schools, roads etc. — a direct tax will have to be applied to both Caymanians and expats.

    At that point, the Cayman Islands will — from a business model perspective (again, how the country makes money) — be virtually indistinguishable from old Mother Jamaica. There will be tourism revenue — but virtually no company and expat fee revenue — and both Caymanians and expats will be taxed. The 47,000 per capita GDP of Cayman will also — as these events unfold — fall towards the 5,402 per capita GDP of Jamaica. As income declines — and the economic activity created by international businesses rapidly diminishes — unemployment will rise. As unemployment increases, crime goes up — just as in Jamaica.

    It has taken several decades of far-sighted Cayman statesmen (and stateswomen), and the Caymanians who proudly supported them and sacrificed for this vision, to rise Phoenix-like out of the ashes of Jamaican administration — and to create a per capita GDP that is exponentially higher than that of Jamaica (with far less crime and a much higher quality of life).

    The path to eliminate these decades of Caymanian progress — to begin the slow but irreversable process of abandoning the tax free model and becoming a taxable jurisdiction like Jamaica — began less than one week ago with the proposal to introduce direct taxation in Cayman (in this case on expats). All that’s required to complete the journey is to ratify and implement this direct tax — and Cayman will once again begin the journey towards Jamaican conditions.

    Of course, no one will gain from this situation — Jamaica as a country will be no better or worse off than it is today, the Jamaicans in Cayman will likely experience more unemployment and lower income, and the Caymanians in Cayman will regress towards the economic condition of Jamaicans living in Jamaica.

    In summary, the business model of a tax free jurisdiction is to remain tax free — and it will maintain a standard of living like other tax free jurisdictions. Once it ceases to be a tax free jurisdiction, it will tend to regress towards the status of other neighboring countries — in the case of Cayman, that neighboring country is Jamaica.

  3. I shall be telling this with a sigh
    Somewhere ages and ages hence:
    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference.
    Robert Frost

    In 1962 Jamaica chose independence and its destiny as a taxable nation. In the same year, instead of the glamour of independence, Cayman took the road less traveled by. Cayman elected to no longer be administered by Jamaica (, to become a British overseas territory and begin the path towards emerging as a tax neutral jurisdiction in1966. Taking the road less traveled by has made all the difference for Cayman.

    Today, the per capita GDP of Jamaica is 5,402 ( — slightly above the levels of Cuba, Namibia, Algeria and Angola and Turkmenistan — while the per capital GDP of Cayman Islands is 47,000 ( which is above the per capita levels of Belgium, Japan, France and Germany. Indeed, Prior to 1966 when the Cayman Islands became a tax haven, you’d have found the capital Georgetown to be a sleepy little backwaterbut with tax haven status came almost overnight sophistication. And today, with more than 9,000 mutual funds, 260 banks and 80,000 companies operating through the islands, Georgetown is a thriving and exceptionally wealthy hub.

    It has taken decades of leadership by courageous Caymanian statesmen and stateswomen — and the Caymanian people who supported them — to achieve this result. As of a week ago, Cayman was known the world over as one of the world’s leading tax neutral jurisdictions — and the fees charged to the businesses and expat employees financed (together with import duties and other indirect taxes) MLA and civil service salaries, unemployment benefits, social services etc. without the need for direct taxes for anyone.

    In less than one week, these decades of work by the Caymanian people and its leaders have been carelessly thrown overboard through the proposal to introduce a new direct tax which has been broadcast all around the world.

    Cayman is now beginning to get the reputation as a taxable jurisdiction (not a tax neutral jurisdiction) in publications ranging from Forbes to to Reuters — from the Vancouver Sun to the Los Angeles Times.

    Here is a small selection of articles promoting Cayman’s new strategy as a taxable (not tax-neutral) jurisdiction:

    1. Forbes: You Know It’s Bad When The Cayman Islands Calls For Income Taxes:

    2. Reuters: Cayman Islands proposes income tax on foreign workers

    3. Vancouver Sun: Cayman Islands may adopt a payroll tax for expats, a first in famed tax haven

    4. LA Times: Taxes? In the Cayman Islands? New budget could tax foreigners

    By choosing the road less traveled by, Cayman has — for over half a century — been a beacon of light and progress in the Caribbean through its strategic choice to become one of the world’s leading tax neutral jurisdictions. As a result, the per capita GDP of Jamaica is 5,402 while the per capita GDP of Cayman Islands is 47,000.

    Over the last week, by proposing a direct tax, Cayman has abandoned its path of light and success, and is now broadcasting to the entire world — through Forbes and Reuters — that it intends to take a different road, the one characterized by direct taxation. This was the road chosen by Jamaica in 1962 and resoundingly rejected by the proud Caymanian forefathers when Cayman chose to become a tax neutral jurisdiction in 1966.

    Taking the road less traveled by has made all the difference for Cayman. Choosing the Jamaican path of becoming a jurisdiction with direct taxation — a choice that began less than one week ago with the Premier’s proposal to introduce direct taxation in Cayman for the first time ever — is likely to lead Cayman to experience the same results as those encountered by Jamaica on its journey of direct taxation.

  4. Has anyone noticed that a lot of posts against the tax (facebook, world newspapers, compass, etc…) all seem to be well research, well founded, and most of all… made by people who clearly know what they are talking about?
    Mr. Bush ( I am intendly dropping the honourable bit) on the other hand has so far not given any reasonable explanation, probably he just came up with it over a cup of coffee when he woke up last week and thought it was a good idea. I am sure he is very proud about comming up with the ‘community enancement crock’!

    Maybe it is time to put a sandbox behind the government building, give bush a plastic bucket and a spade and tell him to be quiet. Maybe it is time to listen to the experts… and maybe it is time for someone competent to take the lead??

    In my humble opinion the damage is already done, tax or no tax. People are offended and the stupidity and ignorance of Mr. Bush has broken more then can be mended.

    Unfortunately the Cayman Islands will never be the same again after this display of extremely poor judgement by the people that are supposed to do and decide what is best for the Island.

  5. Although there are more non-Caymanians than Caymanians in the workforce (18,761 compared to 15,453), there are significantly more Caymanians in jobs that command salaries above 28,800 per annum (10,265 Caymanians compared to 8,012 non-Caymanians). Even in the highest wage brackets Caymanians outnumber expats.

    That simple statement of fact. Ends all arguments that Caymanians are third class citizens in their own country.

    That fact shows the DER works. It is obvious that the system works for Caymanians and expats alike.

  6. And here is a solution to the tax problem


    what is the problem with this?

    If you don’t want to gamble…don’t.

    If it’s against your religion….don’t go.

    A Casino will create Caymanian jobs starting at 15 to 25 an hour.
    It will provide income to the Government. Millions in revenue.
    It gives the tourists something to do.
    It gives the locals something to do.


    They run numbers here, they have bingo’s here, they sell raffle tickets here.

    If that isn’t gambling, and might I add. Uncontrolled gambling, that government doesn’t get a dime of, gambling.

    If that is accepted in this society, and it is. Obviously.

    Then…What….is….the….problem with a Casino?

  7. Big Berd…

    I have one starting solution for my…and my family’s beloved home, the Cayman Islands.

    Get rid of this dangerous McKeeva Bush first…

    Then collectively address Cayman’s problems…

    Those who claim to love Cayman so much !

  8. @CompletelyBaffled

    I can answer this for you, but I’m sure firery will concur.

    These are standard wage rates in the hotel/casino complexes for trusted employees, right down to the waitress level.

  9. Diver. Reread this story.

    I am more than sure Micheal, will be able to give you the information from your request.

    I only copied and pasted from this write up.

  10. old diver is correct. My friend is a slot tech in a casino. And the rates are set across the board at each casino, to prevent employee’s jumping ship to another casino.

    The lowest rate at ANY casino is 15 an hour. A card dealer makes 20 to 25 an hour.

    That does not include the pit boss’s, eye in the sky crews ect ect. that make much much more.

Comments are closed.